We can be addicted to virtually anything: alcohol, drugs, sugar, sex, TV, exercise, the Internet, money, power – and thinking. A hallmark of addiction is that in spite of evidence that something isn’t good for us, we cannot stop our involvement with it. When we’re in the throes of addiction, we give ourselves over to the substance or activity, losing sight of our ability to choose. Addictions create suffering. As Christina Grof says in The Thirst for Wholeness, “People with addictions become compulsively harnessed to the object of their addiction as well as to the destructive and self destructive behavior implicit in it.” Addictions represent a major impediment to well-being. And the healing and transformation of any addiction will make you happier and more connected to yourself and others.
If you live out of your head, only occasionally able to quiet the restless ‘monkey mind’, you may be addicted to thinking. Being addicted to thinking means that you have difficulty unhooking from the incessant stream of chatter that fills your mind. It means that you are ruled by the activities of the mind – endless planning, analyzing, strategizing, ruminating, fearing, wanting, focusing on the past or the future. You move through the day pulled from one thought to another and then to another. Your perceptions of the world and your sense of who you are are defined by mental constructions. Rather than being someone who has beliefs and stories, you believe that you are your beliefs and stories. If you are a thinking-identified person it is difficult for you to live in the present moment. You may be dissociated from your body, feelings and from your spirit. As Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth, says “The more you make your thoughts into your identitiy, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself.”
Thinking addiction is rampant in this culture. We have been taught to lead with and defer to our thinking minds and to distrust knowledge that can’t be empirically validated – the knowledge of our feelings, hearts, bodies, spirit. Of course, being able to think logically and rationally serves us well. We need to be able to assess and define problems, devise strategies for dealing with them, clarify goals, examine options and collect and analyze data. We need the powers of analysis and skillful discrimination. As a university professor, I know the value of teaching students to write and think critically, to question assumptions and articulate their views clearly and cogently. But many of us have become so identified with the reasoning mind that we believe that is all of who we are. As meditation teacher Stephen Levine says of the rational mind, “It’s a good tool, a good servant. But all too often it becomes a terrible master.” It’s no wonder that the still, small voice of spirit inside of us is too often barely a whisper and that we feel cut off from the vast pool of love and wisdom that is the very essence of who we are.
The idea is not to stop thinking permanently or to make an enemy of the mind, but to develop the ability to choose to unhook from thinking when it is not serving you. You don’t have to follow every train of thought; you can start choosing to disidentify from thoughts one small step at a time. You can start noticing when you are lost in thought, and choose to redirect your attention to whatever you are engaged in in the present moment. If you are talking to a friend, for example, and you discover that you have ‘left’ the conversation because you’re thinking about what you’re going to say or, perhaps, what you’re going to do that evening, you can just notice that you’ve disengaged and choose to focus on the person’s eyes, the sound of their voice, or the words themselves. It feels like coming out of a trance – and suddenly you’ve popped back into the present moment. If this has been a long-standing pattern in your life, give yourself plenty of time to develop this new way of being and do not shame or blame yourself when you’re caught in the addiction again. Be patient and gentle with yourself.
What if, right now, you could just put down your thoughts? You can choose to unhook from your busy mind, darting here, darting there. Find a comfortable place to sit, settle in and close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath. Feel the sensation of your breath, moving in, moving out, relaxing into the gentle, rhythmic movement of the breath. When thoughts pop up, just let them come, then let them go, like clouds in the sky. Keep returning your attention to the sensations of the breath. Relax into the gentle, rhythmic movement of the ingoing and outgoing breath. Then let yourself be the sky – vast, open, silent, free. This is who you really are. You have thoughts. You are not those thoughts. And you can choose to just sit back and watch them come, watch them go.